Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. Under the fold on the first page, below images of 19th century paper valentines was an article titled “The Davis Papers: Harvard Gets Them.” It makes reference to renowned scholar and activist Angela Davis, whose work on the prison industrial complex famously landed her in the very system she sought to critique. On the celebrated day of love, I began to think about the heart itself as an archive of sorts. What we love can lead us along many perilous corridors. Yet, in the end, all is not lost. Davis traced her harrowing journey, leaving breadcrumbs for us in her personal archive. '
The acquisition arrives as scholars are “telling a less male-dominated, top-down story about the Black Power movement and the left in general,” the Times writes, “It also sheds light on the rise of intersectional feminism...and the campaign against mass incarceration.” The Times notes that Davis’ archive includes over 150 boxes of material and was donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which also has papers from fellow notable African-American poets such as June Jordan and Pat Parker, pioneers such Harriet Beecher Stowe and Julia Child as well as local women’s collectives and records of lesser-known women who powered various social movements.
The notion that someone, in making available her personal archive to the public, is in a sense offering the heart’s keepsake brought up questions of audience for me. Who was Davis’ intended audience while she was nestling away these papers over the years? They date back more than 40 years. Who will be the future readers, some of whom she may have not yet envisioned. One way to begin to think about this question is to start with the people, the friends who contributed to her personal archive collection.
I found it fascinating that writer and scholar Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, wrote Davis asking whether she wanted a “Free Angela” pamphlet from Cuba she picked up on trip some years earlier to the island. Walk writes, “Do you want it for your archives? Cuba was wonderful...even though there was suffering. I met and like Fidel.”
In friendship, we hold things for one another, secrets, memories, photos and sometimes cats. (Thank you Stephanie for watching Chester Wester, my ginger, short-haired tabby, while I was staying in that shelter--since we couldn’t bring in animals). If the heart is an archive, how do we search its shelves? How do we call forth a precious item for examination, learning lessons?
In reading William Deresiewicz’s “The End of Solitude,” besides being struck by them seamless way he weaves in contemporary questions with historical references, I wondered about the nature of friendship, memory and stowing away boxes. Deresiewicz in his essay contemplates that suspicious way solitude or the seeking of it is treated in our hyper-networked society. He traces the notion of solitude from the hero (the hero’s quest) to the prophet to the poet to the novelist of self (memoir). The one who for a period seeks to be by him- or herself is seen as terrifying, troubled. However, he notes that solitude in the way the seekers of old saw it was not a solitary quest for solitariness’ sake. It was toward social ends, to find a deeper connection with a source.
In a journal entry today, I wrote “My whole life, being alone has meant sharing secrets. That inherently involved two, whether that second person is real or fictitious is another story. However, to dialogue, even with one’s self, we have to create the notion of separateness even if there is no material basis or evidence of that [being separated or discrete].” Deresiewicz notes historical friendship pairs as part of a Romantic notion of sincerity and solitude: “Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.”
Whitman in self-identifying as a poet was in a sense writing to Emerson’s call for the rising up of the “Great American Poet,” who would anchor us in an American tradition of poetry, free from the chain of our colonalist past. Even in the Transcendentalists call to walk out into Nature, reflecting at Walden Pond, they through the ether, through their writings, both in reading and correspondences, were writing, being for each other--even in their solitude.
Have you ever in talking or laughing with a family member at a barbecue or holiday celebration start recounting the “good ol’ days” and all of these memories begin to come flooding in, in that shared space? There are some things we cannot remember or access on our own. If the heart is an archive then Davis’ personal archive demonstrates that the heart is also a personal and collective memory.
Nonetheless it took Davis 40 years to begin sharing those papers with a larger public. Why was she keeping them out of the public eye for so long? Let me make an analogy. The heart--as we all know--is a tricky thing. While like the sea, it is exceedingly open, it also is treacherous. One must know to swim or float in her midst to be buoyed by her. Thus, like the prophets who knew how to part seas, one must have the right moment, conditions, key to access her treasures. Nowadays we use folks like the Army Corps of Engineers to part waters.
But going back to the sea is the heart and the heart is a vault and the vault is the archive analogy, why did Davis keep her treasures underwater for so long? These papers were provided to Schlesinger not as a bequeath. She is very much alive. Why not 20 years ago, 30 years ago? That would be such a lovely questions, if I am ever so lucky, to ask Ms. Davis. The only suspicion I have is that she was waiting for some counterpart, the right moment...a friend, maybe, to appear giving some signal that there was an audience beyond the two of them.
(Pictured above is a photo from sophomore year (2006) at Bryn Mawr College in the Rockafeller Dormitory's basement study space. The jeans I am wearing in the photo were stamped with an iconic image of Angela Davis next two a women's symbol with a black fist inside of it. Rachel, a talented artists and friend, carved the stamp from a linoleum block onto which we rolled ink and used as a stamp. It was in celebration of the re-opening if the Bryn Mawr College Women's Center in the Pagoda Building. )